At Home with Amy Sedaris

By Michael Gartland

Amy Sedaris is crawling around her living room armed with masking tape and a paintbrush. Her baseboard-painting project has thrown her West Village apartment into disarray but it still feels cozy, and although it's late, Sedaris hasn't prepared anything to eat. She's been busy cleaning most of the night. Usually when visitors drop by, she has a snack ready -- famous for her homemade cheese balls, homemade cupcakes, or chocolate-covered pretzels -- but with the house such a mess, she's preoccupied. Soon, she says, things will start coming together. The bookcases she found in the garbage years ago will be arranged just right, and her new striped rug will perfectly complement her new floors, which are striped with dark and light finished woods.

In the meantime, shelves will need painting, a table will need a leg, and two episodes of Just Shoot Me, to air on NBC, will need to be filmed in Los Angeles. Sedaris, the 40-year-old comedian best-known for playing Jerri Blank, a 40-something high school freshman on Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy, is slated to play the female equivalent of David Spade's obnoxious character on the show. But right now, she is focused on making her CD shelves the very best they can be.

"I always find something to keep me busy," says Sedaris, who has the lithe frame of a gymnast but the appearance of a do-it-yourselfer -- the handy man's waist pouch, denim skirt, and paint-smeared palms. For her, DIY is a phrase she uses to describe her work as an actor and writer. She loathes auditions because of the rejection they sometimes bring. Her rationale is that she's better off collaborating with friends like Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert, both of whom worked on Strangers with Candy, or her brother David, an author (most recently of Me Talk Pretty One Day), whose work on the play One Woman Shoe helped earn the siblings an Obie award.

By teaming up with people she knows and trusts, sacrificing integrity isn't an issue, and for Sedaris, that's important. If it's an offer she's uncomfortable with -- such as the one to become a regular on Saturday Night Live, for instance -- she would rather not get involved. In her estimation, the time would be much better spent preparing and selling her cheese balls or cupcakes. Months ago, she even took on a few shifts a week as a waitress at Marion's Restaurant on the Bowery, but she says that with an increasingly hectic schedule and some people's perception that the job was a ploy to come across as esoteric, she dropped it altogether.

Before Sedaris began her career in show business, she was perfectly content waitressing full-time near her childhood home. She worked at a Red Lobster and a Steak and Ale, lived in a duplex in Raleigh, N.C., and entertained dreams of eventually getting a job in a nearby women's prison or as a social worker. Although uncertain of what role she would play in a prison environment, Sedaris keeps a straight face when she says that any job there would have fascinated her. As for a career in social work, her explanation is simple -- she likes listening to other people's problems.

"I listen. I like to give advice. Mostly, I'll just try to listen to my friends, and they'll say the same thing over and over again," she says with an impish grin.

Being "there" for friends doesn't mean she can't bust their chops, though. Inspired by a friend who's currently experiencing a rough break-up, Sedaris decided it was time to change her answering machine message. It now says, "Suicide hotline, please hold."

As she tells it, it took her a long time to develop friendships where she could joke like that, knowing the humor would be understood. In high school, she never had that cushion to fall back on.

"I didn't have girlfriends like that," Sedaris says, pointing out that although she never had really close friends, she could talk to anyone. "I always got along with all types of people -- popular people as well as drug addicts."

Throughout her life, she always had her older brother to confide in. In interviews, she and David both speak of each other glowingly, and in Me Talk Pretty One Day, his anecdotes of her often contain a twisted hint of awe. In one, he muses on how at the age of 10, Amy had the audacity to swipe "a fistful of twenties" from a grocery store cash register, and then told the angry store manager that she was only pretending to steal the money.

When Amy started feeling stuck in North Carolina, it was David who encouraged her to leave for Chicago, where she became involved with the Second City comedy troupe in the early 1990s. After taking classes there with Dinello, Colbert, and Chris Farley, the four were eventually accepted into the fold, and toured comedy clubs and college campuses in every state except North and South Dakota. That lasted two years, and when it was over, Sedaris was asked to become a permanent resident of the troupe.

"When you're on tour, you either totally bond with someone or you hate them," Dinello says. "We spent a lot of time trying to make each other laugh."

"That was more important to us then making the audience laugh," chimes in Colbert.

Although Dinello and Sedaris dated for eight years and eventually broke up, Sedaris refers to the man who played Jellineck in Strangers with Candy as her best friend and someone who shares her obsession with other people's relationships. While she was a resident, it wasn't all hanky-panky and sketch comedy, though -- Sedaris was also taking time out to write plays with her brother David.

The Talent Family, as the two came to call themselves, would bounce ideas off one another over the phone, and then would visit each other's apartments in the West Village to iron out the actual wording. One Woman Shoe, a satire about women on welfare who are forced to perform for their dole checks, was created in this manner, as was The Book of Liz, the Talent Family's latest production. Now, with David living in Paris, organizing the sessions that produce these critically-acclaimed gems is not as easy as it once was, but the two manage.

Sedaris is working on a number of other projects, including a new play by David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers) entitled Wonder of the World. She's a little giddy because she admires her co-star, Sarah Jessica Parker, and because the play presents the opportunity to act in a piece that someone else has written. To Sedaris, those experiences will be the most rewarding aspect of the project, not whether the play is ultimately a critical success.

"It's fun to do somebody else's thing," she says. "It's all about process to me -- as long as it's fun to me, I don't care about the final product."

At this point, Sedaris takes a break from painting to show off the bar her brother gave her. It looks like a tree stump fashioned into a makeshift podium -- something Abe Lincoln could have used on the campaign trail. Upon closer examination, there's a drawer to keep nick-nacks and a cabinet for liquor bottles. It's just one artifact in an apartment filled with medical sketches, real stuffed animals, and thrift store furniture.

When the phone rings, she lets the machine answer. Sedaris explains that for the past few weeks she's been screening her calls. This, she explains, is thanks to an editor at Glamour, who thinks that her style will jibe with theirs. She relates how a couple of years ago, she intended to provide the magazine with a first-hand account of a Brazilian bikini wax. Since it involves the removal of hair from some of the body's more sensitive areas, she came equipped with some strong prescription painkillers. The drugs, while somewhat effective during the procedure, did not alter her reservations about how the editors at Glamour might chop up her story. "The whole time I was thinking, this guy is the editor of Glamour -- a guy," she says, pondering the irony of a male editing a women's magazine.

It isn't that she doesn't appreciate the opportunities, Sedaris just doesn't want to get involved with something that's not her thing. Offers to write for the New York Times Magazine, are great, but as Sedaris puts it, "I just don't do that stuff."

If she did take all the work, the creative process she values so much would become subject to the whims of editors with whom she'd be bound to disagree. The humor and the lessons she originally set out to convey would run the risk of being lost. Granted, lessons like "selling drugs is a good way to make friends" conveyed by her Jerri Blank character in Strangers with Candy are admittedly the wrong ones, but Sedaris feels that a satirical moral still serves an important purpose.

"I always like to see a lesson," she says. "No matter how old you are, it's always good."

© 2001 PAPER Magazine